Digital Reference Services for Engineers

Definition of an Engineer
Types of Information Sources
Accessibility / Ease of Use
Technical Quality
Stages of Information Seeking
The Reference Interview
Digital Reference
References (pdf)
Appendix (pdf)

Types of Information Sources

Ward (2001) surveyed 76 design engineers at a consulting firm and discovered that engineers use both formal and informal sources to meet their information needs. The informal sources used were memory, personal files, and other engineers. The formal sources were personal books, department files, databases, other records of previous work, and the library. The respondents were unwilling to rank the use of these sources stating that their usefulness depended on the situation. The aerospace engineers surveyed by Anderson (2001) had a similar list of sources, which they ranked in the following order: personal store of technical information (informal), co-workers (informal), colleagues (informal), literature resources in the company library (formal), and librarian / technical information specialist (formal).

Most engineers will only turn to formal sources once all of the informal sources have been consulted (Shuchman, 1981). This is due in part to the nature of engineering. The end result of an engineering project is a physical product, not a written document. There is some documentation produced in the course of the project but it is generally a by-product of the project, not the end goal. The final documentation assumes the reader has a certain level of background knowledge about the product. Therefore the documentation is most useful when the author is available to explain and supplement the content (Allen, 1977, p. 5).

The use of the lower ranked formal sources increases as the complexity of the engineer’s task increases. The choice of sources also depends on the type of job. Engineers working in research and development on fundamental research projects often use formal sources as their primary source and make more use of the library and librarians. This is because these projects involve working on a new topic that has not been evaluated by the organization before and there are no co-workers to consult for information (Ellis & Haugan, 1997). Research and development engineers are working in a competitive industrial environment. Because of this competition, most project results are proprietary (Lord, 2000) so colleagues at other companies can’t be consulted for information either.

The choice of literature resources to consult will depend on the specific job and industry the engineer works in. It will also depend on the stage the project is in. Engineers must have a thorough understanding of materials, processes, standards, specifications, conditions of the application environment, safety, economics, competing products, and proprietary concerns (Lord, 2000, p. 4). To meet these needs, the following types of formal resources (in no particular order) are consulted by engineers (MacLeod & Corlett, 2005)

Some of these sources are freely available on the internet, other sources require subscriptions. Organizations typically pay the subscription costs, so price rarely influences an engineer’s choice of an information source. The following criteria are used when an engineer is choosing an information source: accessibility, ease of use, and technical quality. Accessibility is the most important factor determining the choice of an information source (Gerstberger & Allen, 1968).